Vinoth Ramachandra

New Role-Models

Posted on: October 31, 2011

I was visiting Portugal earlier this month, and my visit coincided with that of Marina Silva, the Brazilian environmental campaigner who served as Minister of the Environment in President Lula de Silva’s government.  This remarkable woman has been justly honoured all over the world for her tireless and courageous work. She is far more than an environmental activist on behalf of the world’s forests. She is a promoter of a different style of politics, one that puts the long-term future of the planet and its inhabitants before short-term financial gain. This is a politics of sustainability. It is the translation into all our political and economic activities of the Biblical mandate to “cultivate the earth and to serve/care for it” (Gen.2:15).

Marina Silva is a committed Christian. Her Assemblies of God church has commissioned her as “a missionary for the care of creation.” (Just imagine the transformation in the global Church if politicians, economists, business leaders, environmental activists, artists and others were also likewise commissioned and prayed for!). When she was Minister of the Environment, she brought together heads of fifteen other ministries, including transport, agriculture, education and energy, to formulate policies that would bring the notion of sustainability into the heart of government. This led her into collision, as it has done all her life, with powerful corporate interests and criminal networks that seek to control the Amazon the way that drug cartels in other Latin American countries control the narcotics trade.

Marina herself was born in poverty and grew up in the Amazon rainforest. She spent her childhood tapping latex from rubber trees and hunting with her father to support their large family. She was 16 years old when she finally learned how to read and write. That happened after she moved to the nearest city to work as a house servant. Until then, she had learned from the forest and her own people who inhabited the forest  – these stimulated in her the love for creation, as well as the senses to interpret it. Ten years later she earned a university degree in history and went on to found an independent trade union movement with rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes in the state of Acre. (Just imagine how many children there must be like Marina around the world, their human potential undeveloped simply because of the misfortune to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time).

In the early 1980s Marina and Mendes organized peaceful demonstrations by forest-dwelling rubber tappers against wanton deforestation and the expulsion of forest communities from their traditional holdings. Acre became famous as an example of grassroots resistance to wholesale environmental destruction by logging companies hand-in-glove with local politicians. When Mendes was assassinated, their work became known on a global level. It catapulted Marina into federal politics and, in 1994, she became the first rubber-tapper to be elected to the Brazilian federal senate.

As a senator, and later as environmental Minister, she fought to reduce deforestation by a combination of actions: increasing forest patrols by making the official environmental agency Ibama work alongside the Federal Police and the Defence Ministry; breaking up over 1,500 illegal businesses in the Amazon region;  re-ordering land use by creating 24 million hectares of protected areas and introducing the Public Forest Management Law which provided for the sustainable production of timber, and financially enabling the local forest-dwellers to have a greater role in the management of the forests.

Marina is back in the Brazilian senate, and she embodies a politics that puts people and the planet before profits and power. But this is a lonely position to occupy anywhere in the world.

The rich elites of Brazil, India and China who are the focus of the global media (as in the recently held Indian Grand Prix) are the ones who define “development” for the rest of us. Their moral imaginations are, tragically, severely crippled. They can only imitate the wasteful, unsustainable  lifestyles of Western elites, and although we now know more of what those lifestyles cost the planet and the majority of its human and nonhuman inhabitants, there seems to be little creative thinking in these “newly emerging powers” as to what an alternative model of “development” would look like.

Finally, compare Marina Silva with some of the current presidential candidates in the USA who claim to be “Bible-believing” Christians. Michele Bachmann, for instance, has only one recipe for the present economic woes of her country: scrap the Environmental Protection Agency and all environmental restraints on Big Business! Such stupidity gets a bigger voice in the secular media than Marina’s evangelical economics. (One wonders which Bible Bachmann and others are reading). Can the Church worldwide look to women like Marina as role-models, instead of vociferous North American mega-church pastors and politicians, when it comes to Christian leadership in the public sphere?

7 Responses to "New Role-Models"

As a North American, and in answer to your question, I certainly hope so.

Hadn’t really thought of Bachmannn as an echo-cartel thug spokesperson before. But it’s true…

I have to admit, for a long time as an Evangelical I dismissed the God given call to protect the environment as outlined in Genesis. I suppose I was simply indoctrinated with the idea that since the world was going to end soon, and because Jesus is going to restore the heavens and the earth anyway, the current state of affairs in terms of the environment should not be what Christians concentrate on — as though this call was not something the church should be concerned with at all. Thanks for this post.


Thank you for your post. I am a Christian in the U.S. and an architect. In recent years, sustainability has rapidly become the dominant moral issue of architectural practice. Buildings, as you know, consume enormous amounts of energy and environmentally sensitive materials. However, I have rarely heard the issue framed by a sophisticated concept of social justice. Typically it is couched in a sophomoric secular environmentalism.

Also, I feel that there is an underlying hypocrisy in the profession. Architecture is typically a “luxury” item, available only to governments, luxury businesses and wealthy homeowners, while the rest of us live and work in cheap, ugly buildings designed and built by mass-production. Could this not also be an aesthetic injustice? Perhaps beauty is not a human right, but a brief look at low-income housing projects in the U.S. and elsewhere certainly gives pause.

I feel an increasing sense of angst and meaninglessness as I use my God-given talents to enrich the lives of the super-rich.

Do you believe the concept of aesthetic injustice is worth exploring?

Jacob, your honesty is admirable. You are also raising an issue that goes beyond sustainability and even architecture: why should the poor not have access to God’s creation and the best of our human creativity? After all, we are only stewards – not owners- of our intellectual gifts as well as of nature.

Sustainability and beauty are not in conflict – why should they be? When the poor are involved in the design and building of their living spaces, there is no reason why they cannot combine beauty with simplicity and sustainability. (See Richard Sennet’s book Respect on growing up with low-cost housing in Chicago). And there are many rich homes and offices that are neither beautiful nor environmentally responsible.

Poor folk also experience public parks, railway stations, government offices, etc, and can appreciate buildings that are aesthetically appealing even if they don’t personally use them. In medieval Europe, the great cathedrals, covered markets and town halls were public spaces for all to enjoy. There is nothing to prevent engineers, architects and city-planners combining to design public spaces that are beautiful as well as (for example) less energy-intensive.

In Germany where I live, even some constructions which would be considered “low cost” are often times architecturally pleasing (not in all areas mind you). Nevertheless … I see no reason why this cannot be done in the U.S. and other nations as well. Another thing I enjoy about German architectural policy is that in most cases when an older building needs renovation, it is typically renovated in its original style, not razed and then rebuilt in a modern style. In terms of sustainability, I am no expert, but I think this is paid attention to as well.

Many churches , here in Brazil, are supporting Marina`s ministry. She is also very close to the student ministry, in fact she gave one of the main talks at the last Student Mission Conference held by IFES brasilian movement, and it was really great. Her biography and testimony has been a wonderful model for the new generation. Join us in prayer for Marina and for her ministry in Brazil.
Big hug
Ziel Machado – Brazil

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October 2011
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